Billion-dollar dream for Fortune 500 favourite
How do you monetise a product which has 30 million users per month and no intellectual property?
That is the puzzle being solved at Doodle, a meeting scheduling tool taking the world by storm.
Its novel solution to scheduling free time swaps long conversations and email chains for a single ‘poll’ of times which a group can vote on.
The approach has been a viral hit in the most literal sense. For every ‘Doodle poll’ created online, an average of six new invitees are introduced to the service via the shared link.
The resulting millions-strong user base is now made up of busy friends looking to meet up, interest groups organising their next event and increasingly businesspeople looking to speed up office admin in the world’s most successful companies.
“We know that we are used in about 80 per cent of the Fortune 500,” explained Doodle CEO Gabriele Ottino.
“We see the problem as being much larger and that gives enough runway for building a big business that can be independent, be a billion-dollar business, go public, and all of the dreams that every entrepreneur has.”
The now 65-strong company began as an idea between two PhD students at Zurich Technical University.
Unable to agree on a time slot to meet their friends for dinner, and unhappy with a shared Excel sheet, the pair wondered if an online app would work better.
Incorporated in 2007, the tool’s inherent virality took it from a two-man idea to a viable product.
In 2014 it was acquired by Swiss media giant Tamedia, and two years later Ottino would move from its new parent company to Doodle, tasked with formulating the growth strategy of the company and its then 20-strong staff.
“We want to be the scheduling tools for the poor souls in middle-management who have myriads of meetings every week and are left to their own devices to schedule because they can't have an assistant,” he said of the company’s mission.
Under his leadership, Doodle is now building and readying new products with consideration for the entire ‘meeting lifecycle’.
“It’s not only about scheduling, but it's also about sitting in the right meeting with the right people and having a meeting which has a result,” Ottino hinted.
Though the company continues to grow in pursuit of its blossoming user base, the CEO agreed that its ability to innovate is because it has solved one problem rather than trying to solve them all.
“If you look at what Google, Microsoft or Apple is doing with their intelligent assistants, they're trying to solve any problem with the same assistant,” he said. “That's a very hard problem, but so is scheduling. By focusing on that problem we can build something really valuable.”
He points to Grammarly, a dedicated spelling and grammar checker, as a similar example.
“Grammarly should totally be a feature built in to Google or Microsoft. They've done this type of thing in their text editors for ages, but Grammarly has an edge by focusing on the language and on style,” he said.
When asked if Doodle is similarly ripe for acquisition by a Google or Microsoft, Ottino did not rule out the option.
“In the long term, you never know what will happen,” he said. “It is a possibility that we will get picked up by a large company, but we are now investing in making the product broader.”
Ottino also acknowledges that smart ideas which aren’t acquired by tech giants are sometimes stolen instead, but it’s something the company thinks about a lot having been copied before - and Ottino said they would be flattered.
“Our biggest advantage is being small but having a big user base, which means we can move fast,” he said. “When they copy our latest feature, we need to be working on the next one already.
“If you compare us to a start-up that has a great idea but a small group of users, we are at a completely different starting point.
“We can bank on millions of users and bring them innovation and test it with them to see what works.”
He is now approaching those millions of users as a dedicated revenue stream. Currently supported by advertising, Doodle’s goal is to become subscription-based, and businesses and enterprise are happy to pay for it.
Its existing users in business, the staff and converts who have already brought Doodle in ‘through the back door’, are a beacon of business to come.
“The philosophy in companies has really changed. Some years ago the IT department would just block you and say 'you're not allowed to use this tool'.
“Today they're much more aware that if a tool is useful and people are bringing into the workplace, they might as well accept it and, if it's useful enough, pay for it.”
Ottino said the company is chiefly interested in the US, where the majority of those Fortune 500 companies are based, and software as a service is commonplace.
“We see a huge opportunity in the US both in increased usage and more subscription sales,” he said.
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